Wednesday, 7 November 2007

Feature: Edinburgh - Scene To Be Heard

Few cities rival the vibrancy of Edinburgh in August. Illuminated by the glow of thousands of enchanted tourists, the Old Town’s cobbled pathways are annually transformed into the beating pulse of the global arts community. A jostling, multi-cultural bonanza of colour, creativity and laughter, there truly is no finer place to be than Auld Reekie during the festival.

But when the bitter chill of autumn sets in, those ebullient summer days quickly fade from memory. The city’s once bustling streets are suddenly more haunting than any spectre found lurking within the walls of Mary King’s Close, while venues, which weeks before bulged to the infectious sound of music, comedy and theatre, rest unattended, uncared, unloved. Having exposed herself to the world during four weeks of salacious cultural promiscuity, the old lady of Edinburgh tightens her chastity pants and shuts up shop for the remaining eleven months of the year.

This depressing mist of inactivity has breathed a cold, lifeless sigh into every pore of the city’s artistic grassroots, with creative hubs like The Lighthouse Studios and Roxy Arthouse departing to the sound of minimal local rabble while steadfast cultural arts trusts Out Of The Blue and Wasps have found centrally located studios replaced by more commercially viable ventures (aka profit-spinning flats). Its reputation as a forbearer of culture may be safe in the eyes of the global arts community but Edinburgh’s apathetic approach to the cultivation of local talent has been manifesting for years and nowhere more so than in that barometer of any thriving subculture - the city’s music scene.

Constantly lingering in the shadow of its much vaunted M8 cousin, Edinburgh has nonetheless produced a glittering array of esteemed, if not commercially successful, acts like The Fire Engines, Josef K, Goodbye Mr McKenzie and, more recently, Idlewild. But ask any of the city’s 100,000 or so students to name another successful local act and you’ll be met with faces as blank as daddy’s cheque book because, quite simply, very few groups slip outwith Edinburgh Castle’s watchful gaze and into the national spotlight. So, why has a city steeped in culture and rich tradition produced such a limp musical output of late?

Andrew Eaton, Arts editor of national newspaper The Scotsman and frontman for Edinburgh/Glasgow synth-pop duo Swimmer One, believes history has had a significant impact upon the city’s current plight: “I suspect a big issue in Edinburgh is the lack of what Sam Ainsley [Head of Master of Fine Arts at Glasgow School of Art] once described to me as 'a critical mass' - a generation of bands and artists moving to a city and becoming successful, but also staying in the city long enough to inspire a new wave of creative young people to move there,” he says. “Once that happens several times over, it becomes a cycle - each wave of talent replaced by another one. While the new wave keeps the city's grassroots scene vibrant, the one before becomes international ambassador, bringing new people in.”

This hypothesis has been successfully tried and tested for decades in Glasgow, with artists like Orange Juice, Belle & Sebastian and Franz Ferdinand spawning clusters of new aspiring local acts that feed off this energy and further progress the cycle of creativity. But Andrew feels it will take more than one skinny-tie adorning ensemble of indie urchins to create a thriving, industrious music scene: “People need to continuously bang on about how great Edinburgh actually is so that it becomes somewhere that people think they should be outside of the festival,” he explains. “Cities change over a long period of time and it takes a number of years; it’s about gradual shifts in perceptions and the way people view a city is not something that can change overnight.”

“There’s a sense that you need to make people [within Edinburgh] talk to each other,” Andrew continues. “There are folk doing some really interesting stuff in the city and they all vaguely know each other but I just can’t imagine there ever being a band like the Reindeer Selection [famed Scottish indie ‘supergroup’ containing members of Arab Strap, Teenage Fanclub and Mogwai to name but a few] in Edinburgh. Perhaps people aren’t drinking in the right place?”

It may seem like an obscure, almost sardonic, remark but drinking together in the right place was exactly what gave rise to Glasgow’s The Château – a renowned art-deco warehouse established by Franz Ferdinand’s Alex Kapranos on the banks of the River Clyde where artists and musicians converged to create a neo-rave of sounds and images that eventually became the epicentre of the West Coast and - in the eyes of the British music press at least - Scottish music scene. Over the past decade, there have been promising, if sporadic, flurries of activity amidst the Edinburgh music community, with bands like Ballboy and Aberfeldy edging into the periphery of public consciousness, but there’s been little in the way of Glasgow’s coordination or camaraderie between artists, promoters and venues and, as a result, enthusiasm from despondent gig-goers waned.

As audience’s dwindled the city’s venues began to dissolve. The much eulogised The Venue made way for a spate of luxurious apartments and Cas Rock was replaced by an utterly soulless Latino themed bar. Even when new havens emerged they quickly folded as unmitigated disasters - Gig’s residency in the city centre was a prime example, with owners shying away from larger touring bands in favour of local acts despite having a capacity of two thousand, needless to say the venue closed after three months. Edinburgh had hit deadlock: bands wouldn’t play because crowds weren’t there, and crowds weren’t there because the band’s they wanted to see wouldn’t play.

But recently a siege mentality has formed within the city’s music community. Innovative local acts like The Magnificents, Found, Broken Records, and The Acute are making significant waves on the Scottish music scene; a sprawl of regular gig/club nights have lured back previously unreceptive audiences; and new venues with an eye for innovation are sprouting up across the city centre. As if from nowhere, a buzz has finally begun to resonate throughout the Capital’s musical underbelly.

One of the catalysts in this hive of activity is Born To Be Wide [BTBW] - a meeting place for those working within the local music business to exchange ideas, socialise and play their favourite records. Although not as anarchic as The Château, BTBW nonetheless shares a similar sense of community to that which stimulated Glasgow’s blossoming music scene. Co-founder of BTBW Olaf Furniss explains: “Born To Be Wide was born out of the frustration that most music-related launches were in Glasgow and that if you wanted to see everybody involved in the Scottish scene a trip West was required. We were sick of the clichéd articles and TV programmes pandering to the illusion that good music only comes out of one city in Scotland.”

Operating under the mission statement “Creating Some Sort Of Scene”, BTBW wears its heart firmly on its sleeve but with such staunch sloganeering it could be argued that contriving a movement rather than letting it grow naturally is the antithesis of what a scene should be. “I wouldn't read too much into the slogan,” says Olaf. “The fact is we were unaware of any place where different musicians, journalists and promoters could come together. This could have happened around a certain venue, pub or club, and to some extent it already was. However, other than providing a focal point for people to meet and hang out, everything is really organic. We don't have people walking around wearing name badges like they are at some kind of motivational seminar.”

He adds: “The big achievement [of BTBW] has been to bring together a diverse range of people who might never have met. It's great when they end up working together as a result of BTBW, for example Found's new album is being released on Fence Records after band members met [Fence Collective luminary and label co-runner] Johnny Lynch when he was a guest. Another example is [broadcaster and ex-footballer] Pat Nevin Djing the same night we had one of his musical heroes, Grant McLennan from the Go Betweens, on the bill…Since we started there’s become a stronger DIY culture emerging [in Edinburgh], with bands, promoters and labels all giving it a go.”

Club/gig night I Fly Spitfires epitomises this adoption of a more bull-headed attitude within Edinburgh’s musical community. Established by Chris McAuley and Gavin Glove in 2005 as a means of hearing the music they liked rather than the generic Libertines-led tripe that had engulfed the city’s bars and clubs, the night quickly gained a reputation as a purveyor of quality, cutting-edge music and has built-up up an ardent audience of like-minded devotees.

Gavin believes one of the major factors in I Fly Spitfires’ success lies in its refreshing approach to the provision of local acts: “We’re trying to eradicate the notion of local bands, where if you’re from a home city there’s a mentality that they don’t matter as much as touring bands,” he says. “[Local bands] get treated really poorly by promoters and there’s an obvious gap between those who are treated well and those who aren’t. What we’re trying to do is make an even playing field so that local bands don’t develop an inferiority complex.”

With a plethora of invigorating club nights like I Fly Spitfires, This Is Music and Fast, Edinburgh now has a network of promoters all working in tangent to energise it’s music scene but Chris recalls a time when the it was all very different: “When we started there was no music community here as far as I’m concerned,” he says. “Now people are beginning to talk to each other. Before, it was very regimented in as far as what you could do – promoters were competing against one another instead of working together – but now there’s all these little underground nights appearing that speak to us and we speak to them. The whole improvement of Edinburgh’s music scene is grounded in that kind of communication.”

One of the acts beginning to reap the rewards of the city’s musical rejuvenation is captivating melodic spine-quiverers Broken Records. Currently self-managed, the local septet has already accosted a wealth of column inches in national music rags and websites despite having formed less than a year ago.

Band frontman Jamie Sutherland agrees Edinburgh has recently seen a dramatic shift in attitude to music in the city: “There has been a huge boost in confidence in Edinburgh’s musical community since the turn of the year,” he exclaims. “We took part in the T Break competition in the summer and managed to get through to play at T in the Park. Out of the 15 bands that got through around half were from Edinburgh and this experience has definitely bred a more professional outlook in terms of live performances and also in terms of a future playing music. The overall impression is that a lot of Edinburgh bands are starting to get their acts together a bit more.”

Somewhat paradoxically, Jamie feels the spotlight which has been firmly focused on Glasgow over the past few years has proved beneficial to this progression of the Edinburgh music scene:

“Edinburgh is a curious place to play music in. It has never really had any kind of consistent creative community to put a scene or group of bands together and thus has always been viewed as the poor relation in the East,” he explains. “However, this has just given people the time and space to create music that is utterly unself-conscious and without designs on getting signed – people tend to just make music for the love of making music. Also, because the city is turning into one giant apartment block or Standard Life building, venues are getting scarcer and this creates challenges in itself. People are having to work harder than ever to put on and promote shows and this is leading to a camaraderie between Edinburgh bands that would never be tied together through the way they sound.”

It’s this eclecticism and work ethic that singles Edinburgh’s current independent scene out from the likes of Glasgow, Sheffield or Manchester. Whereas each of these cities have their own distinctive sound, Edinburgh is transforming into a simmering melting pot of diversity stirred by the bands, promoters, labels, venues and gig-goers dwelling within its musical community. It may not have a show-stopping behemoth to call its own just yet but, with the emergence of this dynamic and creative subculture, Auld Reekie may finally have something to shout about for the eleven months of the year when the festival bandwagon’s not in town.


Ally Broon said...

what's this for Billy, DiS? It's really good man.

Rob St John said...

This is a bloody great article, really insightful and entirely accurate. The point about a threshold number of successful bands prompting an inmigration of new musicians is particulaly good.

If you don't mind, I have an mp3 site of a record I've just made that I would like to send you. My name is Rob St John, from Edinburgh. If you're intersted, could you email me on Cheers

Matthew said...

This is nice. Particularly the comment by Chris McAuley about people talking to each other. There seems to be a lot of that, and maybe its the function of a small scene. Other people being successful benefits everyone, so people are possibly a bit happier to help each other out.